A Day in Venice

Posted August 15th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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Bridges over the Grand Canal

St. Peters’ Basilica

Gondolas in Venice

St. Mark’s Square

The streets of Venice

The natives of Venice

Paved in GoOld: The Ceilings of Doges Palace

The Bridge of Sighs!!

St. Peters Basilica again

Venice: Lagoon

The Rialto Bridge

Houses in Venice

Another View of the same

Masks of Venice

Venetian Glass

Wednesday,17 June 2004.

4.00 pm

Reach Venice Mestre from Florence . The “real” Venice is a small island off the mainland. There is one railway line and roadway connecting the island of Venice to the mainland on a mile long bridge. We take the local train to Venice ,Santa Lucia. The only train station in the island of Venice . The only mode of transportation further on is boats or by foot.

5.30 pm

We check in the Hotel Santa Lucia near the railway station. The rooms are decent; the yellow bedspreads give a cheerful feel to the room. We take the vaporetto or the local water “bus” from the Santa Lucia to the St. Mark’s square via the Grand Canal . Seejo is in a trigger happy mode on the vaporetto clicking pictures of all the buildings lining the canal. The Grand Canal is not as wide as I expect. It threads its way thru the centre of the city of Venice with houses, hotels and offices on either side of the canal. The construction of the buildings is slightly different from the rest of Italian structures that we had seen so far. The minarets that crown the old buildings reveal a distinct Islamic influence, which the guide book informs us is because of the close trade relationship that Venice had with the Byzantine empire in early thirteenth century when Venice was an important and wealthy trading port We pass several other boats on the canal, water taxis zooming past us, the odd police boat monitoring the waters and several gondoliers rowing their sleek black gondolas. Just as the Grand Canal reaches St. Marks square it opens up into a wide lagoon. On the far side from St. Marks square, we notice the other islands of Murano and Lido .

7.00 pm

St. Marks square is impressive. Seejo and I are mesmerized. Inspite of the huge crowd gathered there …there is romance in the air. In the fading daylight, there, groups of hungry tourists are bunched around in front of various restaurants. Musicians serenade them as they have an outdoor candlelight dinner. Some couples are dancing away oblivious of the people around. Artists have set up easels and are painting the Basilica The street vendors are trying to sell souvenirs, children are rushing around the place squealing. At the other end the cathedral is illuminated, seems more like a mosque. We stand apart taking in the surroundings.

A nice old couple offers to take a picture of both of us in front of the Basilica. We happily pose for a series of photographs. We reciprocate by taking a few of theirs.

9.00 pm

We wander around the area near the St. Mark’s square. A street musicians is creating the most wonderful sounds by tinkling with a few half filled glass bottles. We enjoy the jal tarang for sometime. Seejo gives him all the change that we had. There is another innovative salesman dressed as a marble bust, with his face painted in off white. There are tiny alleys branching out in various directions. We follow one of these till we come to a small Osteria where we have dinner. The food is excellent; risotto, pasta and a selection of appetizers selected from the bar, one of the best we have sampled in Italy . We set out after dinner to out hotel back to the Santa Lucia for some much needed sleep.

Thursday 18 June 2004

9.00 am

Breakfast is in the small garden outside hotel Lucia. Cereal, breakfast bars, toast with butter jam and honey, milk and orange juice. After breakfast, we check out of the hotel, store our bags with the concierge and then make our way to the vaporetto stop to catch the vaporetto back to the Basilica. The vaporetto stops at around 10 stops between Santa Lucia and the St. Marks square. At each stop, lots of people get in. Everybody seems to be on their way to the square.

10.00 am

We are back at St. Mark’s square. The square looks a little different in day time. The amount of people are just the same but it is possibly due to the flock of pigeons at the square. They outnumber the humans by atleast 2 to 1. Clever vendors sell bird seed for about a euro. The kids seem to be enjoying it. People were covered in those dratted birds. Put some seed on your head and you have three birds perched on your head. We make our way across the square to the Correr museum on the opposite side. The Correr museum has the best of Venetian paintings and sculptures. The museum has more than 40 rooms each one carrying some historical exhibits of the city of Venice ,including weaponry and armors ,maps and coins, and paintings that depict the glory of the once flourishing Venetian empire.

11:00 am

We make our way to the Doge’s Palace. The Doge’s Palace is the sight to see in Venice . The Doge (so our guide books told us) was an elected official of the Venetian city who had absolutely no ruling rights. However he was the ceremonial head of the city, who led the city processions and possibly cut the red ribbons whenever needed. Each Doge was installed in the palace, where he was expected to bring his own personal furniture, when he was elected to an office that was his until death. After his death , the next Doge ,elected by the Venetian nobleman , took his place at the Doge’s palace. The Doge’s palace houses both the personal living quarters as well as public offices ,like the Senate room and the council room of the Doge. Each of the rooms are splendid, we stand in each room marveling at the richness , the gold painted ceilings, the valuable old paintings that decorate each wall in the room, the ornamental fireplaces, the wood paneled walls and the sheer richness of it all

12:30 pm

The famous bridge of sighs connects the Doge Palace to the dungeons underground where political dissidents were imprisoned. The bridge of sighs, so called ,because the prisoners ,got their last glimpse of the Venetian sunshine before being carted off to the dreary dungeons. The prison was rows and rows of tiny cold cells with wooden planks for bed and a small shelf which would hold their meager possessions. Since Venice is surrounded by water, the dungeons were below the water level.

1.30 pm

We escape from the cold dungeons to the hot sun and immediately move in search of shade to the interior of the Basilica. The basilica is magnificent as most of the Italian churches were. However after the churches of Rome and Vatican , the interior is not as impressive. There is also a huge mosaic of the how St. Marks remains was smuggled into Venice from Egypt ( in a pork barrel, as pork is unclean for Muslims) making Venice an important city in the Christian world. The mosaic on the dome of the church shows vignettes from the bible. The church is built in Greek cross style with the the arms of the cross having equal sizes. I am more taken by the grandeur of the external facade. People are queing up to get up to the bell tower of the Basilica. But we know an insider ti, thanks to the guide at the Correr museum. He advised us to go over to the San Giorgio Maggiore island for a better view.

3:00 pm

We make our way to the opposite island pg San Giorgio Maggiore. That was easier said than done. It took ages to figure out the right vaporetto to get there. It did nt help that they were all called # 1. After about an hour we reach the tiny island which has only a area enough for the church and its bell tower. The church was a simple church, By now I have got used to paintings. I notice that there is a Last Supper near the altar. We make our way to the back of the church for the elevator to the top of the tower.

The view was spectacular. We see a blue lagoon dotted with tiny islands. On one side we could see a tiny parking area for the waterboats . On the other side , just below were the green manicured lawns of the church. We spot the long narrow island of Lido where the best beaches are, the tiny islands of Murano and Burano where glass making and lace making flourish. We see the mainland of Mestre and island of Venice as we know it with the Grand Canal threading through it. We stand there for ages darting from one nook to the other, drinking in the view. Almost as a reminder, the bell clanged, shocking us all by the intensity of the sound. With the echoes of the bell still ringing in out ears we made our way back to the mainland.

3.30 pm

Back to the Vaporetto. We got down near the Rialto Bridge , under which bridge the Gondoliers urge you to kiss your partners for luck. From Rialto we decide to walk to Santa Lucia through the bylanes of Venice . See the real Venice . We strolled around gazing at the pink houses with bright pink flowering shrubs at the window sills. Most houses have their backdoors opening into a small canal. Cars bicycles or any other kind of vehicle other than boats being disallowed, the residents of Venice do their grocery, carry out trash, and deliver mail all in tiny boats. To connect various houses, there are hundreds of tiny bridges all around the island.

We ambled around entering a few souvenir shops, here and there. Since ages the Venice Carnevale that marks the beginning of Lent is an occasion here for people let their hair down. Masks were the means to hide all sorts of indiscretions. Mask making is a now a big cottage industry. Venetian paper mache masks of jesters with bells hanging from the jesters crown seemed to be the most popular ones. These masks were in all shapes and sizes, of jesters and queens and even a few animals. The other popular souvenir was the Murano glass. Pieces of multicolored glass blown into various shapes and curios, animals and gondola boats made for a very colorful display. In between the masks and glass, there were a few lace fans and tiny lace umbrellas, another local product. Venetian lace has always been a famous product.

6.00 pm

Back in Santa Lucia . We have dinner at the Italian chain restaurant called Café Brek. We finally get to try the famous Italian appetizer of Prosciouto with melon. Half cooked slices of Parma ham with fresh mush melon slices is not exactly my idea of delicacy but Seejo seems to enjoy it. Fresh pasta made in front of us and some sea food salad made up our dinner.

7.00 pm

We walk along the Canal side watching the sunset. Italians are watching the Euro football match on a TV placed in open air. Italy scores a goal as we pass them and the whole crowd erupts into a war dance. We smile and head off to the local gelataria for our obligatory gelato. We could not leave Italy without having one more. We sauntered along the tiny bridges savoring our triple flavored gelato and saying good bye to Venice and Italy .

Postcards from Pisa

Posted August 14th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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Morning at Pisa’s Field of Miracles. We were just about the first tourists there, reaching there even before the roadside vendors had set up their stalls.

The three structures that make up the ‘Campo dei Miracoli’ or Field of Miracles: The circular Baptistry (in the front), the Duomo or the Cathedral (in the center) and the Leaning Tower which was the Bell tower for this Cathedral.

First glimpse of the Famous Leaning tower of Pisa . It really does lean!

Patel photo at Pisa . This is the back of the tower. Maintenance of the tower is an ongoing process to support the structure and to slow down the leaning process.

The construction of the tower began about 1173. Although it took about 200 years to complete the construction, since it was paused several times to try and circumvent the problem of the leaning of the tower. If you observe the tower closely you can see the various stages when the construction was stopped trying to rectify the inclination of the tower: first around the fourth floor and then while construction of the belfry.

Standard shot at Pisa . The giantess from Brobdingang

Khau gully at Pisa: A long lane filled with eatables , mainly ham and olives from different parts of Italy .

We spent 4 hours in the city of Florence enroute to Venice . Florence was the home of the very wealthy and influential Medici family, the patron of Renaissance movement in Italy . The Medici family was instrumental in encouraging the famous artists and scientists of Italy like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Boticelli, Galileo etc. Under their patronage art flourished and soon Florence was established as the cultural capital of Italy .

We made our way to the Opera Galleria where the world famous statue of David stands tall. Sculpted by Michelangelo it is a stunning masterpiece, an embodiment of perfection that stunned me by its magnificence. In the same room as David, there is a are a group of four unfinished statues, aptly called Prisoners, which were left undone by Michelangelo. The partially completed sculptures, which almost seem to be straining to escape the marble, reveal the unerring eye for detail that Michelangelo possessed to sculpt out a stunning finished statue from a block of shapeless marble.

Next stop: The famous Duomo that inspited architects all over the world to create Domes. This was without doubt the most magnificent building we saw dutring the entire Italian trip. The intricate details on the walls, the massive structure and the beauty of white marble made it an unforgettable sight.

The Baptistry with its famous bronze doors that Michalengelo once called the doorway to heaven.

But positively the best thing about Florence . Its worth a trip to Italy just to eat some more gelato.

Vatican City

Posted August 13th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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Vatican city is a vast repository for untold and immeasurable riches hoarded by the Popes over the centuries. Not just in terms of valuable jewels or gold but in terms of the creativity and artistic endeavors of some of the best Renaissance sculptors and painters. For the smallest country in the world, Vatican packs a lot of “must-see” things in its 0.44 sq km total area. We spent a day in admiring the exhibits in the Vatican Museum, being awestruck by the sheer size and grandeur of St. Peters Basilica and appreciating the beauty and symmetry of Vatican Square .

It is going to be a long winded description if I attempt to describe all of the treasures of the Vatican. So for now I am going to note down the 10 most memorable sights in Vatican City, according to me. This is what I remember when I think back about Vatican City , about 2 months after my visit.

1. The Egyptian section on the Vatican Museum housed a Mummy of a woman that lived around 1000 BC. She was so well preserved that we could even see the orange tinge on her head, which we were told was henna.

2. The Vatican Museum has a collection of ancent Roman sculptures culled from the Roman ruins and other places. Years ago some prudish pope decided that certain human organs needed to be hidden from public view. Thus he ordered that all sculptures be decked with an additional “fig leaf”. That was one of the most amusing sights in the museum.

3. In 1508 Raphael painted the frescoes for the private apartments of Pope Julius. The 4 apartments are now known as Raphaels rooms. Even a completely artistically challenged person like me could instantly observe that these frescoes were somehow different from the frescoes in the other rooms, there was so much brightness emanating from the frescoes. The above picture, The School of the Athens, was instatnly my favourite. I kept looking at it till Seejo dragged me away. The picture depicts various ancient philosophers, artists, scientists and thinkers like, Aristotle, Scorates, Leonardo, Galielo, Pythagoras in one grand fresco.

4. Each room , even every corridoor had very impressive ceilings culminating in the marvelous work in the Sistine Chapel. The ceilings were gilded with real gold and the artistic work was a sight to behold. The above is a ceiling in the hall of tapestries.

5. Michelangelo was commisioned by Pope Julius II to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Primarily a sculptor, Michelangelo took this oppurtunity to learn the art of painting frescoes. Later Pope Clement asked him to paint the alatar piece in the Chapel. The Last Judgement is a large fresco painted by him between 1536 and 1541, showing the power and wrath of Christ on Judgement day.

6. These cherubs are the one thing I remeber most inside St. Peters Basilica. The cherubs were present at the base of a column in the Basilica. The column rose high and there were sculptures of saints positioned on the tower. From the other end this looked magnificnet, but I realised the enormity of the tower only when I came to its base. Those tiny cherubs were more than 6ft tall. I could only imagine the height of the sculptures and then the total height of the dome of the Basilica.

7. Michelangelo’s Pieta. There was some sort of serenity to this sculpture. May be it was the look of resignation of Mary’s young face as she holds her dead son. Another thing I remember clearly is the very realistic folds of Mary’s robe.

8. The statue of St. Peter. There is a huge crown of people that kiss the right toe of St. Peters foot. It has been touched several million times such that the toe has totally been rubbed off.

9. The Swiss Guards that guard the entrance to the Vatican. The requirements for this job are that they should be of Swiss nationality, unmarried males between 18 and 25 and have to undergo rigorous training. The costumes for these guards are supposed to be designed by Michelangelo himself. Well, with this sartorial sense its no wonder that he painted a lot of nudes!!!

10. The magnificent St. Peters Square. The Square and the colonnade were deisgned by Bernini. The colonnade had 284 columns arranged to give an impression of the arms embracing all the people. On the tip of the collonade are Bernini’s favourie characters from the bible, with each statue being 6 ft tall. At the center is St. Peters Basilica. To the right of the Basilica are the apartments of the Pope.

Roman Holiday

Posted August 12th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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Seeing Rome was like a long interactive history lesson. Even if you are not fond of history, this is one history lesson that one should not miss.

We started out at the Coliseum keeping a wary look out for the gypsy thieves that we were warned against. There were a lot of English-speaking history students from various countries who had turned into part-time guides to help with the tuition, in addition to professional guides who offered guided tours of the Coliseum. We decided the tour may be worth it, even if it was just for the fact that we could avoid the long queue for the tickets. Tickets not withstanding, the tour was an excellent idea. For people like Seejo and me, whose knowledge of Roman history was limited to Julius Caesar, our tour guide was a mine of information.

The Coliseum is the most famous symbol of ancient Rome . It was a huge amphitheatre about 201 m long,171 m wide and 49 m high The construction of this massive structure took only 8 years and it was opened to the public built in AD 80

The Colloseum had a seating capacity of 50,000 people. The seats were allotted on the basis of social standing, gender and position. The Emperor, the Vestal Virgins and foreign visitors got the best seats in the house. The men sat in the lower seats closer to the arena while the women and the poor occupied the seats higher up around the ring. The Colosseum was witness to several duels between professional gladiators and fights between men and wild animals. Events at the Coliseum were a whole day affair begining with animal shows and comedy relief before moving on to the event of the day. Professional gladiators then fought against each other or wild half starved animals or trained slaves or condemned prisoners in front of a bloodthirsty crowd. The slaves and prisoners were not just randomly chosen. If a prisoner showed some talent or strength, he was chosen to duel against a gladiator. He would be trained and given the best of food to build up his strength, for a quick killing did not excite the public who were looking for a long and exciting fight. After the fight, it was the Emperor who would decide whether the loser would be killed or not. A good fighter, inspite of a lost fight was not always condemned to death. After all training a gladiator was an expensive investment. Sports, even back then, was a money making proposition. Reports also said that the Colisseum was the stage for several terrible injustices such as public rape of slave women, torture of Christians and a brutal treatment for prisoners.

Roman Forum: A Birds Eye View

From the Coliseum, we went on another guided tour, a free one this time, of the Roman Forum. The Forum is located over a large area and is strewn with the tombs and ruins of various structures from different Roman eras. If the Coliseum built in 80 AD seemed an ancient structure, then what could I say about the Roman Forum which was a thriving market place in 500 BC. It was the “downtown” for the ancient Romans. The Roman Forum though has structures from various centuries as Romans loved to build over existing structures. There are a lot of old buildings like the tomb of Julius Caesar, the temple of the Vestal Virgins, the Arch of Constantine, the Senate and so on. After an interesting recap of Roman History, we went up the Capitoline hill to get a breathtaking birds-eye view of the Forum. The museum on the hill houses a lot of objects and artifacts that were discovered from the ruins. These include household items, marble and bronze statues, and ancient tools and implements. We spent a short time looking at the vast collection and then made our way down to the main street.

The Victor Emmanuel Monument

We walked on towards the Piazza Venezia where we paused a moment to admire the huge white marble monument to King Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of unified Italy. This also serves as the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On the other side was Trajan’s column, a huge white marble column to commemorate Roman King Trajan. We stopped a few minutes to look around, . then proceeded again.

The Trevi Fountain

With guide maps in hand, we made our way to the Trevi Fountain. This was one of the several fountains that Bernini constructed across the city of Rome . But this one is supposed to bet he most magnificent of them all. It was certainly the most crowded place in Rome. Bangladeshi and Chinese street vendors were running all over the place trying to sell souvenirs. Seejo and I sat a little away, trying to appreciate the beautiful and the large sculptures that made up the fountain. There is a superstition that if you throw a coin into the Fountain and make a wish you will be able to come back to Rome .

The Spanish Steps

The next day we visited Vatican City . On our way back we relaxed a bit near the very crowded Spanish Steps. The Spanish steps are actually a series of steps leading to a church. They were so crowded that we could hardly see any steps. In front of the steps is another of Bernini’s fountains. Two buildings away was the lodge of Lord Byron when he was in Rome .

The Pantheon

The next day we were up bright and early and made our way to the Pantheon. The Pantheon was a pagan Roman temple devoted to the worship of all gods (pan: all, theon: Gods). When Romans adopted Christianity, it was used as a church for some time, but the practice did not continue. The Pantheon has a very symmetrical construction. The Dome of the Pantheon was an architectural marvel in those days, a perfect hemisphere with the same radius at each point. At the center of the dome is a round skylight, the only source of light inside the Pantheon, in ancient times. There was a lot of effort and thought put into the construction of the then largest dome atop a structure. Pantheon is also the final resting place of one of the most famous Renaissance painters, Raphael. There were shrines in the walls of the Pantheon, some still having statues of saints. From the outside the Pantheon is not very impressive, its almost a shabby looking structure. But then the realization dawns that this building is almost 2000 years old and still very well preserved.

The Four Rivers Fountain

Next, we visited another famous fountain by Bernini at the Piazza Navona in the afternoon. This is the fountain of the 4 rivers. This is an almost bizarre architecture with 4 different old men representing 4 ancient rivers (The Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Plata each one representing the four different continents.) But apart from that , there is a plethora of animals and birds and trees around the base of the structure, even an armadillo! This grand structure forms the base of an obelisk , a Roman copy of an ancient Egyptian obelisk. Out of all the fountains of Bernini that we saw, this is the one that stays in my mind even now. Interestingly all the fountains have a common aqueduct system that runs throughout the city of Rome . The water is recycled between all the fountains. Also it is potable enough to drink!!!

Michelangelo’s Moses

Our final stop in Rome was the Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore, near the coliseum. We spent some time admiring the Coliseum again from another angle and climbed the hill to enter the basilica. The highlight of the Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore was Michelangelo’s last work as a sculptor, the marble statue of Moses. This was originally intended as one of the side figures for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Seeing the height and the magnificence of this statue, I could only imagine how the tomb, if finished would have looked like. However, the tomb could not be completed and the statue found its final resting place in the Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore. The wrath in Moses’ face is palpable. He seems as though he is just about to rise from his marble chair. It was another example of Michelangelo’s skill as a sculptor. Every church in Rome has beautiful paintings, and magnificent ancient art. We spent a few moments admiring a few other paintings and then turned back to the station.

That was our last day in Rome. We were off to Pisa in a few hours.